My Crampons for a Pillow

Man in a Palm Tree.jpg

It’s a title in the very best tradition of ironic adventure writing, and I’d feel flattered if the article recalls, in the title or writing, the illustrious Tim Cahill, an adventure writer if there ever was one (see below for some of his inspired book titles). In my case it turned out, lumpily, unbelievably, to be true. I really did use my crampons for a pillow, albeit unwittingly. So, something from the ‘absurdly tough’ school of adventure writers. Not.

Although this site, A Life of Adventure, is there to help people look forward, adventures have happened forever, so occasionally we look back. This moment comes from an event called Eco-Challenge, held in British Columbia, Canada, in 1996. I you don't remember Eco-Challenge, it was one of the big adventure races of the 1990s, a week long, non-stop ‘expedition competition’ in teams of five, through mountains, jungles and deserts, canoeing, climbing, mountain-biking, lots of different sports, actually, as befitted the terrain.

Eco-Challenge British Columbia started at dawn in a misty valley, with a ride and run – two of us riding horses and three trotting close by.  There was the usual chaos of riders being bucked and horses bolting at the start, but luckily we were unaffected. Then we were underway, rucksacks secured on the riders, the five of us trotting and jogging alongside on the trail.

After some 25km we left the horses and had a river to cross. It was flowing fast with grey glacial melt-water and bitterly cold, but we made it. And then began the first mountain trek. We set off into the summer afternoon sunshine, laden down by rucksacks that were too large, as we discovered (by comparing them to the hand-bags some other teams were carrying - we were new to this game). We climbed four or five thousand feet, nothing major, but hot, hot work.

I learnt that afternoon just how good clear mountain water can taste when you’re really, really thirsty. Perhaps there was a high mineral content, and perhaps I was experiencing some sort of heightened sensitivity in my dehydration, but it was enough to stop me in my tracks. We continued hiking for 12 hours, into evening and the night. It was hard graft, on steep and often difficult terrain, but we were making good progress. It is important to keep momentum in races like these. And we were achieving it.

It was an elastic wall of leaves and branches. We would have to fight for every inch of ground…

Until we entered the slide alder. None of us had come across anything like it before. It was an elastic wall of leaves and branches. And nigh impenetrable. At a stroke our estimated time for crossing the col into the next valley increased from one hour to five, or more, and we realized we would have to fight for every inch of ground. Who knows, perhaps some teams never made it out of there.

There is simply no easy way to move through slide alder. At around twelve or fifteen feet high, its branches are two inches thick, robust, springy and unbreakable. Here they were growing on the rocks of a moraine, so there was no level ground on which to place our feet. Near the ground they grew horizontally, but then they turned to vertical, like some diabolic web. The logical thing appeared to be to stand on a lower branch for some grip, hoping that this would create some space above through which we could move, but as we pushed one branch underfoot twenty more sighed down to fill the space, like sharks teeth on a conveyor. So you grab a handful of branches and try to swing your way under the curve. Ha, no, they’ve thought of that. They’re too springy to take your weight, so you end up falling on your back. There’s just no easy method. So you have to smash your way through.

One pace forward, boing, one pace back, one violent thrust, slip swish thwack, the person behind gets the branches in the face. And so the swearing begins, at whatever botanical God invented this stuff.

Now add an unwieldy rucksack on your back, with an ice-axe sticking out of it, and it’s like a comedy routine, like throwing yourself at an enormous vertical trampoline. One pace forward, boing, one pace back, one violent thrust, slip swish thwack, the person behind gets the branches in the face, then your rucksack gets stuck behind a branch. Your mucker unpins you, under strain, and you bounce, all of six inches, into the next branches. And so the swearing begins, at whatever botanical God invented this stuff.

At two am, after five hours of thrashing through this hellish overgrowth, advancing at less than a kilometer per hour, one person flailing and shoving, the next unhooking them, our hands, hair, neck, every section of exposed skin, in fact, were grimy with the dusty residue of alder branches. We decided on a halt. It was cold but humid and therefore sweaty - but we couldn’t huddle together for warmth, the slide alder saw to that. All in all, just what you don’t want for a short sleep. We lay where we could find space. I think I opened my sleeping bag and spread it over me – getting into a bag among all those branches would have been laughable. Last thing, I pulled the next object out of my rucksack and set it onto the exposed rocks, put my head on it and in seconds I was dead to the world….

I should take a moment to describe Eco-Challenge British Columbia in a bit more detail. It was the third major event in the brand, after Utah and a smaller race staged for the ESPN Extreme Games 1996 in Rhode Island (much of that race took place in Maine, and then teams were flown to Martha’s Vineyard and kayaked into Newport). The course in British Columbia was magnificent – after hiking (eventually) across a glacier we picked up canoes and paddled for a day and a half before mountain biking for another day or more – but it was too long. And after five days, our team, which was placed within the top ten or twelve, had completed less than half the course. The course organizer wanted finishers for TV and proposed to fly us forward. We didn’t want to be telly monkeys. So we canned it. Did Not Finish. Gutting. In the end a storm prevented the leading teams from completing the whole course, but it was so long that most likely none would have anyway.  

… but back to the team cataleptic in the slide alder... An hour after bedding down, the watch alarms began to stir us. It was still deep night, long before dawn would glint on the snowline up ahead, but it was all we would allow ourselves.

It’s hard to express how denatured you feel at a moment like this. Bodily, you struggle to lift unnaturally heavy seeming limbs, as your systems struggle to move from repair mode to active movement. But we were young and the team had clear momentum. We just groaned and started to pack up. However, the brain feels literally crumpled, crushed in on itself, and struggles to get into gear. So I forgive myself for missing what happened next.

I picked up my ‘pillow’ and weighed it in my hand. Through the fug and incomprehension, a thought coalesced. Not a clear thought. And it came with an edge of some sort, which I couldn’t tease out at the time. But there it was. I had laid my head on a pair of crampons wrapped in a fleece. With admirable perspicacity, my first thought was:


I was too exhausted, evidently, to spot the idiocy.  So I just checked my head for divots and shoved the crampons back in my rucksack. It has taken 20 years for the thought to be fully expressed.


Tim Cahill has written any number of books about adventure and the outdoors. As an editor at large of the US publication Outside magazine, he travelled all over the place, putting a very particular, ironic twist on all sorts of human activities. The titles of his books are sublime though, and include Jaguars Ripped my Flesh, A Wolverine is Eating my Leg, and Pecked to Death by Ducks, and deliciously, elliptically, Remote Journeys, Oddly Rendered. If you like a Wikipedia link, here’s his.

For more about Eco-Challenge, see here